The Biography of Abu Rayhan al-Biruni. A Forgotten Great Scholar

Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni was a great Persian Muslim scholar of the 10th and 11th centuries. Like many of the Muslim scholars, he believed that he could get closer to God if he understood his creation. Although his life and his contribution to science could be the focus of entire books, we will approach only the geographical aspect of his scientific work.

Lunar eclipse al Biruni 1024x721 The Biography of Abu Rayhan al Biruni. A Forgotten Great Scholar

Al-Biruni, is a Persian scholar who was born in 973 in Khwarazm, today known as Karakalpakstan (Uzbekistan). He studied under the famous astronomer and mathematician, Abu Nasr Mansur. By the age of 17 he was involved in scientific research. In 990 he determined the latitude of Kath (Uzbekistan) by observing the maximum altitude of the sun.

He wrote his Cartography which is about map projections. As well as describing his own projection of a hemisphere onto a plane. By the age of 22 he had studied a wide range of map projections and addressed them in treaties.

In 995 the rule by the Banu Iraq was overthrown in a coup. Al-Biruni fled at the outbreak of the civil war.

By the 4th June 1004 al-Biruni came back to his homeland. Abu’l Abbas Ma’mun became ruler and he provided important resources to al-Biruni’s scientific research.

Armed conflicts in the region interrupted the scientific work of Al-Biruni and made him leave Khwarazm around 1017.
Al-Biruni studied Indian literature, and translated many Sanskrit texts into Arabic. He also wrote treatises about Indian astronomy and mathematics. He was versed in astrology, astronomy, chronology, geography, grammar, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, religion, weights and measures.

He wrote his famous text, Shadows, around 1021. It is a precious legacy of the history of mathematics, astronomy, and physics. He is also the pioneer of what would be later known as polar coordinates.

Greek scientists, in particular Ptolemy, inspired Al-Biruni as for his conception of the spherical shape of the earth and its geographical components. In his al-Qānūn al-masūdī, he addressed the Greek astronomers’ theory of the earth and enhanced the debate of the distribution of land and sea with new knowledge and thinking.

In his Tahdīd he approaches climate change and stratigraphy. In India he interpreted the theories of the earth both of the Purānas (religious text about the history of the universe from creation to destruction) and of the Indian astronomers.

Al-Biruni made large contributions to geodesy and geography. He introduced techniques to measure the earth and distances based on triangulation. He claimed that the radius of the earth was 6339.6 km, by observing the height of a mountain in India. His Masudic canon reveals a table with the coordinates of six hundred places. Some of them were given by al-Khwarizmi (Persian scholar, 780-850).

Coming to the geographical organisation of the world, Al-Biruni accepted the Greek teaching of the seven climes, and also explained with deep precision the seven kešvars (Ancient Persians conceived the world as vast, round and surrounded by a high mountain) of traditional Persian geography and the seven dvīpas ( “peninsula, island” in Indian mythology) of the Indian Purānas.

Al-Biruni’s focus was mainly in the location of places relative to each other, their latitudes and longitudes, and the computation of their azimuths (angular measurement in a spherical coordinate system) of the qebla (direction to Mecca).

Al-Biruni did not meet problems for establishing local latitude. The longitude difference between two different places was his main obstacle. He managed to overcome it by assessing the longitudinal difference based on an amendment of the itinerary distance between two localities, using the latitude of each, and a determined value for the circumference of the earth. After establishing the longitudinal difference between any places of known latitude and Mecca has been determined, he managed to compute accurately the azimuth of the qebla.

Abu Rayhan al-Biruni died in 1048 in Ghazni (Afghanistan).

If you have enjoyed all the exciting information in this article about geography and cartography, you will love everything else about GIS you will find at

By Morad Ouasti

Like this article? Sign up for free weekly updates and download your free Arc GIS Introduction video training:
  • Ali frihida

    Thanx 4 introducing this great scholar. It shows new evidences about rich moslem contribution to human scientific heritage.

    We can also cite Al Idrisi as a great geographer!!! May you wish to introduce him???

  • Juliana Maantay

    Very nice job on the biography of this important and under-appreciated geographer. Some of you may be interested in a similar biographical sketch that I posted recently about another important Muslim geographer/explorer, Leo Africanus, otherwise known as al-Hassan ibn-Muhammad al-Wezaz al-Fasi, at

  • Gary Bertolo

    Morad… I have to say you introduce some very interesting and enlightening topics and DIY? (did you know?) history lessons. Very Cool! Keep the stuff coming.

    Peace 'n' Knowledge to all


  • Ajay Srivastava

    Good article. I was interested in knowing the details of Al-Baruni work who visited India also but never came to know his contribution in defining coordinate systems and projection.

  • garmin 1490t

    Hi there, I observed this blog once, then lost it. Took me forever to arrive back and find it. I wanted to view what comments you got. Very good blog by the way.

  • liana

    this is a very good article and this is what i call a biography thank u soo much morad ouasti :)

  • Jorj Billien

    love muslim nice job

    • admin

      thx Jorj :)

  • Jamal G

    I just wonder why you make a point of pointing out the religious identity of these scholars and especially muslims, that you do not care to point out for other non-muslim scientists or scholars? Does that make them more noticable and more important or Is that an identity crisis?

    • admin

      Hi Jamal and thx for your comment,

      Sociologically, when you want to study an individual or a group of individuals you need to know all the foundations of his or their identity. A man or a woman is consituted of many aspects among those, the spiritual aspect. The latter does not mean religion only, because an atheist can have a spirituality. He could be looking for a truth, for example.

      Obviously you can not cut apart a dimension of the human being and consider only the others.

      In this sense I gave the maximum information about Al biruni so people can understand what were the things that influenced him throughout his life.

      Coming to your next question, pointing out that somebody is from a certain a belief does not make anybody from another belief less valuable. If somebody thinks like that I believe that he has some identity problems and that he has a lack of confidence.

      Why don't you write a nice biography of non muslim scientist and I would be glad to publish it on my blog :)

      with love and peace


  • Anirban Pal

    Great thinkers and philosophers are generally identified by their skills innovations and writings in their own language. Persia, Arabia, India were the pioneers in philosophy once upon a time. On the advent of colonialsm, much of the language,creativity and independent thinking has been lost to foreign languages. Now we are more prone to comparisons, rather than new creativity. Learning from these great scholars should definitely help youngsters to think and innovate in their own language!

    • admin

      Thanks Anirbal for your constructive and enriching comment

  • shafeeque

    Dear Jamal,

    I oppose your arguments, because there are number of Muslim Scholars, scientists and researchers have been forgotten by the history only because they were Muslims or at least their names have changed even they have mentioned there.

    Comparatively the Muslim scholars have difference than the other scholars because their source of thinking is exactly from Quran and Hadeeth. But unfortunately the experiments we are achieving from the past is not completely revealed. because their experiments are reaching the oneness of God and they are finding Allah from their travel.

    can you say what is the difference of Islam and other religion?

    in short Islam is the only religion that asking to 'think and find the truth'

    all other religions even they have just some words think, they cant show the way of thinking like Allah asks. The studies and researches of famous Islamic scholar's like Ibn Seena, Ibn Rushd also Biruni and others have been translated into somany languages and demolished the original transcripts.

    These all are some other historical experiments we can find in between the lines.

  • saeed

    Very nice article and pride for Muslims..



    • admin

      Thx Mujeeb :)

  • Abdulla Kunhi

    This article brought an additional feed back of forgotten scholar in islam and his great contribution to the world.

  • Abdulla Kunhi

    Thanks you very much for the wonderful article of the ancient scholers of islam.